Black and white picture of New World Moonshine Distillers

How the Whiskey Making Craft Came to America

The American Whiskey Pioneers

Few know the controversial history that surrounds American whiskey pioneers. Forced to migrate from their homeland, this new breed of European settler brought with them the secrets to making whiskey.

The Highland Clearances saw many Scots forced to leave their homeland. Between the years 1750 and 1860, a mass migration of Scottish farmers, indentured servants, migrants and craftsmen left Scotland for the New World and brought with them the knowledge of spirits distillation. Many popular American and Canadian whiskey brands owe their craftsmanship and success to these whiskey pioneers. 

This forced removal of the Scottish population from the Highlands is a major contributor to the world-wide Scottish diaspora. Also, why so many Americans and Canadians can trace their ancestry to the proud medieval clans of Scotland. 

Scotland pushed to privatize pastures and sheep herding lands away from the local inhabitants, many still living under feudalism and militaristic clans.

Scottish Clans Fighting the British

To hasten their removal, Highlanders, like the native American and African,were portrayed as barbarous and uncivilized to justify their subjugation. Landlords agreed to forgive all debt if tenants emigrated, prompting even more to leave. Many others were coerced into being shipped as indentured servants to the growing United States.

The money that helped pay for the controversial Highland Clearances might surprise you!

In an odd twist, the Slavery Abolition Act that ended Britain’s participation in the African slave trade also compensated Scottish slave-owning families in the Caribbean and elsewhere for their property losses. That money was used by wealthy landowners to purchase more lands and expel Highlanders, by force if necessary. 

Government member reads the Riot Act to angry crofters after their land was taken away from them in early 1888. Photograph: Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The majority of men and women who were paid under Britain’s 1833 Slavery Abolition Act are listed in the Parliamentary Return that accounts for the money awarded by the Commissioners of Slave Compensation 1837-8 (215) Vol. 48. 
The destination of Scottish immigrants was closely linked to the empire. The countries that welcomed exiled Scots were all at a time British colonial settlements. Evicted Scottish immigrants arrived in the New World on land commandeered from the native inhabitants for homesteading and farming.

Whisky Makers from the Scottish Highlands: The Crofters

Crofting is a system of land holding unique to Scotland. A croft is a small land holding, of which the crofter is a tenant. Scottish crofters lived directly off the land. Their staples included barley, potatoes, mutton, pork, milk, cheese, eggs, wild rabbit, salted herring and plenty of moonshine.

Crofting was another outcome of the Highland Clearances. Tens of thousands of people were evicted and moved to small plots (with poor farming soil), in return for yearly rent. Making a living this way was difficult and bootlegging certainly helped keep up their spirits. A liquor tax might have helped spur the illicit trade, the overwhelming reason was poverty and necessity.

Many Scottish crofters supplemented their income distilling illicit whiskey.

In a region filled with an abundant supply of water, peat and grain -–– all the ingredients needed to make malt whisky –– the Scottish Highlands were alive with illicit distillers. 

The word whiskey is derived from Gaelic uisge beatha “whisky,” literally meaning “water of life”.

The Corn Whiskey Pioneers

American whiskey history begins with rye, but it ends with corn. The grain used for making Scotch whisky was not part of the original picture. European barley did not grow well in the soil of the eastern United States. But corn does, as it has for thousands of years. Today, the mash bill (or recipe) must contain at least 51% corn for it legally to be called American “bourbon whiskey”. 

The path to corn is not surprising. The typical ingredients of American moonshine consists of corn, rye, sugar, and yeast. The new arrivals learned to successfully grow corn from the native inhabitants, before they too were forcibly removed. Cherokee lands covered much of Tennessee and Kentucky, the western parts of the Virginias and the Carolinas, across to northern Georgia and Alabama––the region known as the corn cradle of American whiskey

Settlers also had luck on their side: For the first 200 years in America, it was perfectly legal to make and sell your own whiskey! 

The word “moonshine” derives from the Old World “moonraker,” early English smugglers who made untaxed liquor at night – under moonlight – to avoid discovery. 

More nicknames:  white lightning,  mountaindew, choop, hooch, homebrew, mulekick,  shine, white-corn liquor, white-corn whiskey, firewater, bootleg…

The “clear, unaged whiskey” called moonshine ––made from barley in Scotland and Ireland––was now being made from the abundant supply of corn crop in the United States. The rest, as they say, is bourbon whiskey history.




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